Between the years 1947 and 1955 Rocky Marciano entered the squared circle 49 times and remained undefeated against all challengers. The reasons are many, including his relentless fighting style, punching power, stamina, and iron chin. However, at the end of his career, 49 pros had thrown everything they had at him, and he always found a way to survive. And win. Retiring with a perfect record 49-0 and an 88 per cent knockout rate, he stands as one of the undisputed greatest boxers of all time. Dublin footballers now stand on the cusp of such immortality with a possible three in a row of titles on the horizon.
Every county over the winter and spring months since 2014 have strategised on how to decode and take down the sky blues - and thus far, all have failed. Whatever is thrown at them they seem to find an answer… and in championship football they are currently 19-0. Yes, they have been rocked back, hit hard — and put on the ropes by Mayo in both 2015 and 2016 – however, they took their best shots, rode the red and green wave, and have always found a way to succeed.
Like Marciano, if Mayo want to box, they can box. If they want a slug fest, they can withstand that too, and meet it head on. If they want a shoot-out - "Bring it on baby". What Stephen Rochford has up his hat for two days’ time remains to be seen — but the last time the city slickers tasted defeat back in 2014, it took something new and never before seen from Jim McGuinness’s Donegal. And the Dubs have absorbed that harsh lesson well and learned from it. They are a different animal now.
The stakes are huge
The stakes are massive. For both counties. For Mayo it is yet another opportunity to finally end the pain of big defeats in colossal games in Croke Park. There have been too many. And that hurt will drive them on. This Sunday’s Mayo starting team as a collective unit have never lost an All-Ireland final and their steadfast and supremely loyal supporters are once again starting to believe that this Sunday is indeed – Their Time.
For Dublin and their meticulous management team, lead superbly by Jim Gavin, Sunday represents an opportunity for immortality as regards Gaelic games. A potential five All-Irelands in seven seasons would definitely rank them up with the great Kerry team of the late 1970s and early 80s and would give added credibility to the claim that they are indeed the GOAT – Greatest Of All Time – team in Gaelic football. They have an array of strengths that set them apart from the chasing pack.
Cluxton simply the best
In Stephen Cluxton they have the best goalkeeper in the history of the game. A defence is the foundation of a team’s success and belief, and the number one building block has to be the man between the sticks. Go back to his stunning winning free in 2011 when they beat Kerry by 1-12 to 1-11 in the All-Ireland final and look at his consistency and understated brilliance since then.
His professional approach is legendary and he works incredibly hard at staying the best in the country. The fact that he is the first man at Dublin training every evening and one of the last to leave, is one of the reasons that he could stay playing top level inter-county football for another few years if he so wishes. A frightening prospect in itself.
His coolness and sangfroid under pressure is replicated by the likes of Cian O’Sullivan, Johnny Cooper, and Michael Fitzsimons who have all proved their worth in the hot heat of battle in Croke Park on All-Ireland final days.
Super ball players and stunning mobility
A team manager cannot do much without top quality players, and Jim Gavin has a awesome panel to pick from. Many of his current subs would still be the main men on almost all other county teams. His options of the bench against Tyrone were top-class and ominous from a Mayo perspective this weekend. Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O’Gara, Michael Darragh Macauley and Cormac Costello who did the business last year in the replay – All of them are All-Ireland medal holders and most of them possess All-Stars, with the odd player of the year thrown in for good measure.
Those guys are the real-deal and can be massive game changers as Kevin McManamon has regularly shown in the past – most notably against Kerry. Their experience and desire to collect a fifth All-Ireland medal will make them very dangerous opponents, and no doubt all of them have at least 20/25 minutes in them to come in to try and make an impact if required.
Mayo do not have such options off the bench, but then no team has. The interchangeability of the Dublin players highlights their skills set as evidenced by how James McCarthy has thrived since he has moved out to the middle of the park. His Rolls Royce engine is ideally suited to covering ground and he will be a crucial player for them if they are going to beat Mayo.
The raw pace and stamina of the returned Jack McCaffrey is frightening to watch and the way he burned off a few Tyrone players on his sallies will have marked him out a guy that Mayo have to try to track. Kevin McLoughlin is a fine player, but he will have his work cut out keeping tabs on the UCD medical student.
The conductor of Dublin’s attack is Ciaran Kilkenny and Mayo need to do a man-marking job on him. He goes where he is needed and links play for his team. He rarely wastes or loses the ball and his decision making is top-class. He needs to be stopped and maybe Lee Keegan or Colm Boyle will be handed that job.
King Con has been a revelation
Young Con O’Callaghan has been a revelation since he has come onto the team this year and his display against Tyrone went some way to justifying his “King Con” moniker. In Dean Rock they have one of the best and most consistent free-takers in the country and a player who has really improved his overall game in the past few seasons.
His incremental improvement year on year is the ideal example of how the Dubs have worked at improving themselves – individually and collectively - and why they are potentially just one game away from doing something that has not been achieved since 1984-85-86.
Of course Mayo can win on Sunday. It is a two horse race — however, they have not beaten Dublin in either league or championship since 2012. Hence to do so, they will have to do something special. They had a brilliant chance to beat Dublin last September, and they did not take it. Will that come back to haunt them?
Dublin have not been really tested this season and Mayo are sure to throw the kitchen sink at them. However, in the final 10 minutes when Dublin run their bench — in this parish we believe they will have the men who have answered the tough questions before, and they are likely to do so again.
For me, it will be 20-0 by 5pm on Sunday evening, and like Rocky Marciano, this Dublin team will then be acknowledged as one of the greatest ever.